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National Center on Secondary Education and Transition

Increasing Rates of School Completion
Moving From Policy and Research to Practice

A Manual for Policymakers, Administrators, and Educators

Part III: What Works in Dropout Prevention?

Sample Dropout Intervention Program


Background: The first career academy was created in 1969 in Philadelphia and was called the Electrical Academy. It was implemented at the Thomas Edison High School, which at the time had the highest dropout rate in the city. By the mid-1990s, there were 29 academies in the Philadelphia schools and several in Pennsylvania. In the early 1980s, the idea of career academies was adopted in California, where there are now nearly 300 programs supported by state grants and hundreds of others operating through local support. In California, the state-supported career academies are known as California Partnership Academies.

Since their original implementation in Philadelphia, career academies have been replicated in many places. Experts estimate there are between 2,000 and 3,000 nationally. While the model was originally geared toward lower income students, it is now widely used with a cross section of students in high school, and as opposed to simply preventing dropouts, it is intended to promote both college and career preparation.

Variations on the model have been developed since the first career academy was established. For example, a similar model was implemented in Michigan in which students spent half the day at their home high school for academic classes and half the day in a vocation-technical center. Results of the longitudinal study on program effectiveness indicated that participants had a significant decrease in dropout rates.

Intervention Description: The purpose of the career academy model is to restructure schools in a way that dropout rates will be reduced, student performance will improve, and students will gain better skills for college and careers. Fundamental elements of the model include the incorporation of academic and technical skills, small-size classes, and collaboration among teachers. Other important features include creating a close, family-like atmosphere and establishing employer and community partnerships. Parental involvement and support is also strongly encouraged.

The three-year program begins with students applying to an academy their freshman year. The academies are designed as schools-within-schools, with participants attending several academic- and career-themed classes (e.g., English, social studies, science) together. Each academy has a specific career focus (e.g., media, business technology, health) that it pursues through both academic and career classes. Cohorts are typically small, with only 50-100 students admitted each year. Students in academy classes may hear guest speakers from local businesses or participate in field trips to nearby workplaces and colleges. During their junior year, student are matched with mentors from local employers who serve as career-related “big brothers and sisters.” After their junior year, students who are performing well enough to be on track for graduation are placed in summer or part-time school-year jobs. Students must submit résumés, complete applications, and participate in interviews, just as would any other candidate. Participating companies are responsible for hiring decisions.

Participants & Setting: The targeted population is typically urban high school students in grades 10-12, although some schools extend the program to students in grades 9-12 and some limit it to grades 11-12. Although a few high schools aim for low- or high-performing students, those who participate usually represent a cross section of the high school. In typical inner-city settings many program participants are African-American and Latino, are often from low-income families, and are likely to have poor attendance and grades. Students are recruited for participation, but must apply and voluntarily attend. In the California state-supported academies, half the participants must meet at least three of the following criteria: irregular attendance, past record of underachievement, low motivation, and/or economic disadvantage. The other half do not have to meet these criteria.

Implementation Considerations: Teachers typically request to participate in the program and must be willing to work with other teachers and a group of students interested in the career field. The teachers in each academy should have the same planning period and meet regularly to work on program activities and curriculum, coordinate with employer partners, meet with parents, and discuss student progress. Each academy is headed by a lead teacher in addition to having a steering committee involving employers and higher education partners who oversee the program. The partners also provide speakers, field trip sites, mentors, and internships.

Cost: There are no firm estimates for the cost of implementing a career academy. Estimates vary depending on which elements of the approach are included. One estimate in California was that it adds approximately $600 per student per year. Support for career academies typically comes from several sources: outside grants, the state (in California and a few other states), the district, and participating employers and community agencies. It has been estimated that the lifetime social benefit of saving each student dropout (in terms of welfare and unemployment costs) is about $86,000 while the social cost is $41,000, for a net benefit of $45,000 per student.

Evidence of Effectiveness: Several studies have examined the effectiveness of career academies. Overall, the findings of these studies indicate that on average career academies reduce the rate of school dropout and increase attendance, credits earned, grade-point averages, and graduation rates. One study also indicated increased college attendance and completion rates, in comparison with similar students from the same district when matched prior to academy entry.

One longitudinal study that examined outcomes for 11 academy programs in California found that academy participants performed better overall than nonacademy students (although three of the 11 sites produced inconclusive results). The next year, a follow-up study examined the same 11 programs and found that high school outcomes (e.g., grade-point average, credits earned, and courses passed) were generally positive for academy students when compared to matched comparison groups. It was also noted that academy students experience their biggest academic gains in their first year of the program.

Another study looked at the effectiveness of Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (JROTC) programs, which utilize the traditional career academy model with the addition of requiring students to enroll in the JROTC program. Results indicated that program participants had significantly higher grade-point averages and significantly lower rates of absenteeism when compared to comparison subjects.

Additionally, data provided for 42 of the 43 state-supported academies in California for the 1995-96 school year show program participants had lower rates of school dropout and higher rates of attendance than nonparticipants.

A national longitudinal study of ten academies using a control group design failed to find many of these positive outcomes. It did, however, find a more positive learning climate that both academy students and teachers preferred to the regular high school structure. It also found statistically significant gains in employment outcomes four years after high school. But it did not find statistically significant gains in attendance, credits, grades, graduation rates, or test scores.

Overall, most studies have shown that career academies improve student motivation, some types of academic performance, and employment outcomes.

Manual or Training Available: There are several organizations that provide support for career academies, including:

  • The Career Academy Support Network (CASN) at the University of California, Berkeley
  • The Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed At-Risk (CRESPAR) at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore
  • The National Academy Foundation (NAF) in New York City
  • The National Career Academy Coalition (NCAC) in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Each of these organizations offers a variety of conferences, materials, and professional development services.


Building a school within a school: California Partnership Academies. (2003). Retrieved December 17, 2003, from http://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/gs/hs/cpaoverview.asp

Burnett, G. (1992). Career academies: Educating urban students for career success (ERIC/CUE Digest, No. 84). Retrieved December 17, 2004, from http://www.ericdigests.org/1993/career.htm

Elliott, M. N., Hanser, L. M., & Gilroy, C. L. (2001). Evidence of positive student outcomes in JROTC career academies. Retrieved December 17, 2003, from http://www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR1200/MR1200.pdf

Fontaine, R. (n.d.). California Partnership Academies: What are they? Retrieved December 17, 2003, from http://www2.bc.cc.ca.us/techprep/partnershipplus.html

Hayward, B. J., & Tallmadge, G. K. (1995). Strategies for keeping kids in school: Evaluation of dropout prevention and reentry projects in vocational education: Final report. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Hughes, K. L., Bailey, T. R., & Mechur, M. J. (2001). School-to-work: Making a difference in education. Retrieved December 17, 2003, from http://www.teacherscollege.edu/iee/PAPERS/Stw.pdf

Maxwell, N. L., & Rubin, V. (2000). High school career academies: A pathway to educational reform in urban school districts? Kalamazoo, MI: W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

Stern, D., Dayton, C., Paik, I. W., & Weisberg, A. (1989). Benefits and costs of dropout prevention in a high school program combining academic and vocational education: Third-year results from replications of the California Peninsula Academies. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 11(4), 405-416.

Stern, D., Dayton, C., Paik, I. W., Weisberg, A., & Evans, J. (1988). Combining academic and vocational courses in an integrated program to reduce high school dropout rates: Second-year results from replications of the California Peninsula Academies. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 10(2), 161-170.

Contact Information:

Bernie Norton, Administrator
California Partnership Academies
High School Initiatives Office
California Department of Education
1430 N Street, Suite 4503
Sacramento, CA 95814
Phone: 916-319-0893
Fax: 916-319-0163
E-mail: bnorton@cde.ca.gov

California Partnership Academies (CPA)
Web site: http://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/gs/hs/cpagen.asp

The Web site for the Career Academy Support Network (CASN) at the University of California, Berkeley (http://casn.berkeley.edu) offers a national directory of career academies, a variety of free handbooks and guides, an online inquiry service, and information on the other organizations listed above (and many others).

Table of Contents

Cover Page

Introduction & Getting Started

Part I: What Do We Know About Dropout Prevention?

Part II: How Were Sample Intervention Programs Selected?

  • The Need for Examples of Effective Interventions
  • Search Process & Initial Criteria
  • Raising the Bar
  • Final Parameters for Selection
  • Abstracts: Coding & Definitions

Part III: What Works in Dropout Prevention?

Part IV: Where Else Can I Go for More Information?

  • Related Resources & Organizations
  • Journal Articles & Related Publications
  • Web Sites Providing Data on Dropout Rates

Appendix: Reproducible Handouts on Dropout Prevention


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Citation: Lehr, C. A., Johnson, D. R., Bremer, C. D., Cosio, A., & Thompson, M. (2004). Essential tools: Increasing rates of school completion: Moving from policy and research to practice. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration, National Center on Secondary Education and Transition.

Permission is granted to duplicate this publication in its entirety or portions thereof. Upon request, this publication will be made available in alternative formats. For additional copies of this publication, or to request an alternate format, please contact: Institute on Community Integration Publications Office, 109 Pattee Hall, 150 Pillsbury Drive SE, Minneapolis, MN 55455, (612) 624-4512, icipub@umn.edu.

This document was published by the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition (NCSET). NCSET is supported through a cooperative agreement #H326J000005 with the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Department of Education Programs, and no official endorsement should be inferred. The University of Minnesota, the U.S. Department of Education, and the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition are equal opportunity employers and educators.